Covalent adduction of nitrogen mustards to model protein nucleophiles

Chem Res Toxicol. 2013 Aug 19;26(8):1263-71. doi: 10.1021/tx400188w. Epub 2013 Jul 30.


Protein adducts have the potential to serve as unique biomarkers of exposure to compounds of interest. Many xenobiotics (or their metabolites) are electrophilic and therefore reactive with nucleophilic amino acid residues on proteins. Nitrogen mustards are reactive xenobiotics with potential use as chemical warfare agents (CWA) or agents of terrorist attack, in addition to being employed as chemotherapeutic agents. The present study utilized cysteine-, lysine-, and histidine-containing model peptides to characterize in vitro adduction of the nitrogen mustards mechloroethamine (HN-2) and tris-(2-chlorethyl)amine (HN-3) to these nucleophilic amino acid residues by means of liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry. The study assessed the structure of adducts formed, the time course of adduct formation, concentration-response relationships, and temporal stability of adducts. Adduction was hypothesized to occur on all three model peptides via initial formation of a reactive aziridinium intermediate for both mechloroethamine and tris-(2-chlorethyl)amine, followed by covalent adduction to nucleophilic residues. While adduction was found to occur most readily with cysteine, it was also observed at lysine and histidine, demonstrating that adduction by mechloroethamine and tris-(2-chlorethyl)amine is possible at multiple nucleophilic sites. Following solid phase extraction cleanup, adducts formed with mechloroethamine were stable for up to three weeks. Adducts formed with tris-(2-chlorethyl)amine were less stable; however, hydrolyzed secondary adducts were observed throughout the three week period. This study demonstrates that the nitrogen mustards mechloroethamine and tris-(2-chlorethyl)amine form stable adducts with reactive protein nucleophiles other than cysteine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Chemical Warfare Agents / chemistry
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid
  • Histidine / chemistry
  • Lysine / chemistry
  • Mechlorethamine / chemistry
  • Models, Molecular
  • Nitrogen Mustard Compounds / chemistry*
  • Peptides / chemistry
  • Peptides / metabolism
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Proteins / metabolism
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry
  • Xenobiotics / chemistry


  • Chemical Warfare Agents
  • Nitrogen Mustard Compounds
  • Peptides
  • Proteins
  • Xenobiotics
  • Histidine
  • Mechlorethamine
  • 2,2',2''-trichlorotriethylamine
  • Lysine